The Muny Celebrates 100th Season

It’s hard to believe that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary that The Muny, St. Louis’ iconic outdoor theater, has served the Gateway City. Since its humble beginnings with fledgling performances in the early 20th century, The Muny has attracted thousands of audience members, artists, performers and visitors over the years, all rallying around the nonprofit arts institution nestled in the sprawling Forest Park.

2018 is also the 50th year the organization’s current CEO, Dennis Reagan, has worked with The Muny, beginning his tenure while in high school on the clean-up crew. It’s a year that speaks to the depth of the city’s commitment to the power of live theater and making it accessible for everyone. Tickets start at just $15, and the last nine rows of the theater are available for free seating for every show on a first-come basis. This season’s lineup includes performances of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” (June 11-17), “The Wiz” (June 19-25), “Singin’ In The Rain” (June 27-July 3), “Jersey Boys” (July 9-16), “Annie” (July 18-25), “Gypsy” (July 27-Aug. 2) and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Aug. 4-12).

We spoke with director of marketing Kwofe Coleman—who is in his 20th season working with The Muny and started at age 16 as an usher—about working for the organization and how it has retained St. Louis’ respect decade after decade.

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“The Wiz,” photo credit: The Muny.

How do you decide on the shows produced at The Muny each season?
It’s certainly a process. It’s an especially large task for our artistic director, Mike Isaacson, who’s preparing two to three years ahead of every season. For this year in particular, we really wanted to assemble a group of shows that would speak to the wide variety of people we serve, who come from all over the city and all different walks of life. As this community’s theater, that’s our main goal.

“Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” is an incredible production that takes the audience to iconic moments in classic shows, and it’s a huge undertaking. “The Wiz” is a cultural phenomenon, derived from “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s been high on our list to produce for several years. We like to mix some really new, strong, contemporary shows with the classics, like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Jersey Boys,” “Annie” and “Gypsy,” which are also shows that the whole family can appreciate. And we’re closing out the 100th season with “Meet Me in St. Louis,” of course.

How do you think The Muny has remained such a strong cultural institution over the years?
Definitely through the audience and the community, which are truly one in the same. Our longevity is really a community accomplishment. It’s amazing that a theater of this size has sustained here for 100 years, and that it’s become a place where so many generations of families have made this a part of their summer tradition. People come here for the incredible shows, but I think they also come here for more: That becomes really clear when you hear about the relationships that have been formed here. This is a St. Louis institution that we can all be proud of, and the community is the reason why we do what we do. It’s very important to us that there’s a sense of community ownership.

In true St. Louis form, there are also 1,500 seats reserved at The Muny for audience members to attend for free every night, which sends the message that live theater is for everyone—not just people who can afford it.
That’s exactly right. When we emphasize in our mission statement that we want The Muny to be accessible to all, we mean that to account for all the typical barriers that keep people from live theater. Tearing down those barriers is absolutely our number one priority.

The Muny really is for everyone. We also partner with local social-service organizations so they can give away tickets to their constituents. Over the past 100 years, we’ve had around 50 million guests, and each year over 100,000 guests see the shows for absolutely no cost. They’re not just for one social class. “Muny” comes from “Municipal Theatre,” or “Muni,” meaning we serve a true cross-section of the city. St. Louis is a city full of world-class institutions that are available to the public for free, and we’re incredibly proud to be a part of that.

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“Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” photo credit: The Muny

What do you believe is the power of experiencing this type of art?
I think the common uniting factor is that each night, audience members from all different walks of life are connecting through a shared experience. Twenty years ago, when I began as an usher, I made lifelong friends and developed relationships with people whom I may never have come in contact with any other way. You can interpret the shared experience on a micro level like that, or you an apply it to the audience, where people are forced to crash into each other. We get to do something together, and the current status quo demonstrates a moment in history where that is not always true.

The willingness to absorb and enjoy art is not dependent on the many things we think that divide us. They’re irrelevant. We are currently in a cultural moment all over the world where we’re hypersensitive about what divides us, and art supersedes all of that. It forces you to have a shared, common experience. Those lines that we believe make us different in so many areas of our lives don’t need to remain constant.

This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. All images courtesy of The Muny. 

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